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Education funding, teacher pay continue to lag

A new study shows that most states have never recovered in their ability to support schools since the economy bottomed out in 2008.

"Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools than before the Great Recession," noted researchers from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who reviewed state budget documents for their study.

"In 31 states, total state funding per student was lower in the 2014 school year than in the 2008 school year," they said.

"Worse, some states are still cutting eight years after the recession took hold ..." they added. "These cuts weaken schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs."

As state budgets shrink, per-pupil spending and teacher pay have stagnated, even as teacher retention marks an expensive problem for the nation's public schools, estimated to cost them $2.2 billion annually. One-fifth of all new teachers leave after the first year, data shows, with many feeling unsupported, underpaid and, perhaps more importantly, lacking autonomy in making learning decisions for their classrooms.

A recent study ranked the best and worst places to be a teacher, looking at several factors including salaries, student-teacher ratios, cost of living and state spending.

Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania mark the top three states for teacher pay, adjusted for inflation, the study by WalletHub.com found. They are followed by Wyoming and Massachusetts.

The worst states for teacher pay are West Virginia, Maine, Arizona, South Dakota and Hawaii, the study said. Annual mean wage for elementary teachers in West Virginia, for example, was $46,010, with middle school teachers earning $45,870 and secondary school teachers earning $44,550, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Highest per-pupil spending occurred in Vermont, followed by New York, New Jersey, Alaska and Rhode Island. Vermont also posted the lowest student-teacher ratio, followed by North Dakota, Kansas, Maine and New Jersey.

The lowest spending per student was in Arizona, WalletHub.com said. Other states with the lowest spending on students were North Dakota, Indiana, Oklahoma and Utah.

According to U.S. Census data released in 2015, per-pupil spending nationally was $10,700 for 2013, but it "varies heavily" across the states. New York, for example spent $19,818 in 2013, the latest data available, while Utah spent $6,555.

According to PayScale.com, the highest-paid teachers work in New York City. Their median annual pay is $54,903, reflecting the high cost of living and housing. By contrast, teachers in Los Angeles earn a median salary of $51,729 and in Houston, a median salary of $50,234.

Ranked by state, California teachers earn the highest median salary at $53,303, followed by New York at $52,943 and New Jersey at $52,595.

There are about 3.5 million teachers nationwide with another 500,000 expected to be added by 2018, teach.com reported, making it the nation's largest profession.

Education is funded through local, state and federal revenue contributions.

Of the revenue streams, 45.6 percent comes from state governments, 45.3 percent from local property taxes and other local funds and 9.1 percent was received from the federal government, the Census said.

Those states with the biggest declines in state funding to education per student were Arizona with 23.3 percent, Alabama at 21.4 percent, Idaho with 16.9 percent and Georgia at 16.5 percent.

The smallest dips in state funding per student occurred in New Hampshire, Washington State, Michigan and Ohio.

State spending was up in several states, including North Dakota (90.7 percent), Illinois and Alaska, (10.4 percent), Vermont (10.3 percent) and Connecticut (9.2 percent).

But the overall financial picture moving ahead for school districts in many states is tepid, with small increases expected, notes Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"We don't know for sure what they are going to end up spending on K-12," he said as legislatures continue to work on new fiscal-year budgets this spring.

"State revenues have continued to improve a little bit. It's a continuation of the last couple of years where the economy is gradually strengthened and so we have seen some modest growth as a result in terms income and sales tax revenues," Leachman said. "Because K-12 schools are the biggest chunk of state budgets, I would expect in general spending in most states would continue to gradually improve this year."

A handful, however, continue with large budget shortfalls, he added. Those are oil and energy states where dips in oil prices have created losses in operating revenue. "Those states really face big problems and are cutting," Leachman said.

In Kansas, where tax cuts in 2012 have failed to stimulate the economy, a fiscal crisis is afoot for schools, forcing courts to get involved, Leachman added. Now, the legislature there must rethink how to handle school money moving ahead.

"They actually threw out their school funding formula and the state Supreme Court has ruled they need to increase funding for low-income schools or the court won't allow schools to open in the fall," he said. "We'll have to see how that plays out."